Shapes of things before my eyes

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For self-confessed ‘contrarian’ designer Omer Arbel, the creative process never starts with a preconceived idea. Instead, he lets the process and the material shape his work. ‘It’s all an intuitive adventure,’ he says... 

Originally featured in the Form Issue
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There is nothing straightforward about Omer Arbel’s studio, which is also the headquarters of Bocci, the unorthodox design powerhouse that he co-founded. With a backdrop of snow-tipped mountains amid a sea of low-level blocks in a commercial slice of Vancouver, an incongruous London plane tree pokes out of a corner that has been cut out of a sixth- floor roof. Below, an exterior stairwell bulges out of the robust former printing factory, cantilevering over a path; at ground level, a front door features indigenous Douglas Fir deconstructed into myriad large splinters. 

Once inside, the top floor reveals a courtyard of shrubs and wisteria surrounded by a halo of copper where the roof used to be alongside – a wall of glass leading to offices. This is typical of the creative director’s work, having built a reputation for eschewing classic forms in his designs, from lights and sockets to houses and installations – such as the 280 bright hand-blown spheres of 28.280 (Arbel numbers his creations in chronological order) that tumbled down 30 metres from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s ceiling. 

Today, that’s where we find the 40-year-old, busy fiddling with his next contrarian notion. As he bounces around the series of gnarly aluminium pieces suspended on fine wire, he explains how the installation comes from an unconventional approach to foundry practices. The lumps of congealed sand found in the moulds typically used to cast metal pieces are usually smashed so they can be reused – but Arbel decided to blast hot metal on to these rock-like pieces for the 44 prototype. (His pragmatic numbering system allows him time for reflection and to resurrect pieces in his archive at a later stage: ‘They never die,’ he smiles). It’s a perfect example of his design modus operandi: do the unexpected, and see what happens. 

‘Even if playing around with a large crucible of liquid metal is terrifying,’ he laughs, ‘it’s so exciting because the metal just percolates around where it needs to go and then we just crumble the sand off . We never start with a preconceived idea of form – we instigate the materials to invent a form on its own, then we learn from it. Each piece has its own schedule.’ 

The company won international favour straight out of the gate in 2005, when Arbel recognised a design curveball in the 14 light (he chanced upon what he dubs the ‘eye’, a meniscus shape that the glass formed in its hemispherical mould). Fast forward 11 years, and the 36-strong headquarters now cultivates those moments of surprise and random imperfections with its three furnaces firing 24 hours a day, as well as churning out the never-out-of-production 14 from its barn in the nearby countryside where he conducted his earlier experiments. (The product is stocked in 500 showrooms worldwide and found at such corporations as Foster + Partners and Herzog & de Meuron.) Bocci also has warehouses dotted around the city for metal casting, porcelain and other glass work. 

‘There’s an exuberance and an optimism that comes with that energy and ability to work without dogma responding to the inertia of previous generations,’ he continues. ‘So what began as a huge obstacle has now become the way that we work – and different from others. On the creative level it’s meant that I could create this methodology unhindered, because I am present in the glass shop or the porcelain shop or the metal-cast studio every day. I would have developed as a designer in a very different way if I could have plugged in to all these existing ways of thinking and delivering work.’
 
For the past few years, however, the Bocci empire has also expanded into Europe, with a base in Berlin to allow him to be ‘more involved in the conversation’, something he felt was important as the company approached its 10-year mark. Being able to luxuriate in a 23,000-square- foot historic courthouse – complete with a ‘theatrical dimension’ of wide corridors, ornate six-storey atrium and lavish staircases – in the centre of the German capital, points to an internal confidence, he suggests, to pursue projects in an even less compromised way. 

For example, 44 was shown there before it was ready. While he was tempted at first to use the courthouse to show only finished work, setting it up as a laboratory with works in progress has paid off . ‘For anyone else, those vast corridors and staircases would be a waste of space; for us, it’s the perfect environment,’ he says. ‘By hanging them there, we can see all the different ways the piece wants to go – which I would never have known unless I had experienced it in this vast scale – and then being able to correct various details and connections and refining the specifcity to the level of a millimetre.’ 

Arbel not only lets the processes dictate the form in much of his work without a design or shape in his head, but sometimes there’s not even a function or purpose to his objects. Springing up (Arbel was a junior competitive fencer in an earlier life), he suddenly grabs a hefty nugget of 71 from one of the nearby shelves that carve up the office spaces. ‘This is just a thing,’ he proclaims matter-of-factly, rolling it on to the curved marble table – the result of an earlier experiment now doubling as his desk. 

Scribbling intently on a piece of paper, he illustrates its creation: how a hollow steel machine bolt is hand-wrapped with a coil of copper wire and dipped into a chemical solution of emulsified nickel that has a high electrical current running through it (a process repeated thousands of times over many months). As the electrified liquid is attracted to the bolt and also to the electro-magnetic eld, it forms nodules around the object (think iron filings to a magnet) to create a beautifully bobbly, sculptural object.
 
‘I’m still interested in exactly the same approach to form, but on a molecular level – there’s another leap in that the hand of the craftsperson is absent; there is no craftsperson involved at all,’ he explains. ‘It’s a joy to develop things [simply] because I think it’s worthwhile: to declare from the outset that it’s not for sale. It’s just a pedagogical approach to explaining how we’ve reached these things.’ 

Continuing his focus on form and this newfound expanse, he’s also mining a new seam in his architectural practice by bringing the ‘intelligence’ the company has developed in the scale of its objects over the years into architecture. Arbel (who previously worked at Patkau Architects and Busby + Associates Architects in Vancouver in the early 2000s) criticises the existing, labour-intensive and ‘crazy’ way of using concrete in building – such as the great expense of constructing formwork, pouring in concrete and waiting for it to cure before stripping it away. For him, it’s about discovering the possibilities of casting what’s essentially a liquid into plaster geotextile fabric instead. 

He reveals a model of column that acknowledges that fluidity, flowing out at the top, clearly itching to change the building landscape seven years after creating 23.2 (the freestanding concrete house shortlisted for a World Architecture Award, that showcased 100-year-old Douglas fir beams – some notably 20 metres long – through the art of triangular geometry).
 
‘Conceptually, we organise everything into the grid,’ explains Arbel. ‘It’s convenient to our minds, but not at all in the way that concrete wants to behave.’ Along with the clear sculptural potential, he adds, ‘This is much more true to the nature of the material.’ 
And that, to Arbel, as with all his explorations, is the very definition of good form.

bocci.ca

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Words Lucy Hyslop
Photographs Andrew Querne